Blue Jays’ Martin feeling refreshed after physically taxing 2016

Toronto-Blue-Jays;-Russell-Martin

Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin. (Kathy Willens/AP)

•Martin happy with how off-season surgery played out
•Injuries hampered Martin last season, culminating with post-season struggles
•Blue Jays should be able to find better off-days for Martin in 2017

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Only light dabs of scruff remain from the shaggy beard Russell Martin rocked last year, suddenly making the Toronto Blue Jays catcher look about five years younger. More importantly, he also feels about five years younger following a mid-December surgery to clean up his left knee.

Through the final two months of the 2016 season plus the playoffs, some frayed cartilage in the joint caused steady pain, eventually becoming so bad that even sitting down was uncomfortable. When two weeks of prescribed rest didn’t help, he decided to go under the knife.

"Now it feels great man," he said Tuesday, one day ahead of his 34th birthday, while leaning back on a chair in front of his spring locker. "I’m really happy I got it done."

Less happy with the surgery were the underwriters handling insurance for the upcoming World Baseball Classic. Their refusal to cover his contract denied him a chance to play shortstop for Canada at the tournament. He’s unhappy about it, suffice to say, especially because of how much better he’s feeling.

There’s a freedom for Martin in no longer needing to prepare for three hours of suffering on the diamond, and he expects that to translate positively onto the field.

"It affects you everywhere, it’s on your mind. You cancel it out and play with what you have, but it affects you," he said. "I can’t say I’m going to hit this amount of points less or I’m not going to hit as many home runs, I just know that it’s something you have to mentally block out and deal with, so I dealt with it. It definitely makes the game less fun. When you feel good and your body feels great, the game is awesome. When you’re banged up, it’s brutal."


***

Most brutal were the three games he played in the American League Division Series sweep of the Texas Rangers and the five games in the American League Championship Series loss to Cleveland. Already on a bad knee, things became exacerbated for Martin when a celebratory low-five from Troy Tulowitzki after the wild card win over the Baltimore Orioles split open his left pinky and required stitches.

For the next eight games, he couldn’t effectively plant his left leg in the batter’s box or wrap his left pinky around his bat. "I’m straight like Karate Kid on one leg all the time," Martin said, mimicking his batting stance from the post-season. "That was a grind."

Grind is an understatement, as he went a cumulative 3-for-33 with three walks and 14 strikeouts. And then there was the pounding behind the plate.

"Texas, oh man, was the worst. Catching with that (finger stitched up) was, ugh!" he said. "In your mind, you’re thinking, ‘What if I get a foul tip?’ No matter how tough you are, those things cross your mind. You try and block them out. You try and keep your focus on what’s at hand. But you think about a lot of stuff. Everybody does. The key is not to think about that stuff as much as you can."

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Russell Martin struggled mightily in the 2016 post-season(Nathan Denette/CP)


Asked if the takeaway there is to be careful when a fired up Tulowitzki wants to celebrate, Martin smiles. "He loves a low-five, I’ve got to watch my low-fives with Tulo," he replied. "It was just bad low-five technique on my part."

***

Bad technique is one way to describe how Martin’s knee issues became amplified last year. On July 21, a day off, he stepped into the sauna looking for the steamy heat to help cleanse toxins from his body. He stayed in a bit too long, was on an empty stomach, and ended up fainting for the first time in his life.

Exactly what happened after he lost consciousness is unclear, but when he came to his head was sore. The next morning, his left knee hurt so much he called in and said he couldn’t play that night.

"I wish I remember how I fell," said Martin. "You ever look at fights when someone gets knocked out, they go unconscious and their knee buckles, or something? I must have fallen awkwardly. … I don’t think it was a major impact, I think I fell kind of slowly, but if I’m thinking about it, if my knee was sore and I fell awkwardly, then I must have bent a certain way."

Martin missed three games before returning to the lineup and didn’t seem to miss a beat. Over his next 29 games, he went 31-for-105 with nine homers, 25 RBIs and 16 walks. The pain started catching up to him in September and he went 14-for-87 with four homers, 13 RBIs and 19 walks over his final 27 regular season games. He played in all but two of the team’s contests over that stretch.

"We had to make the playoffs," said Martin. "We’re not the only people who get bonuses when we make the playoffs. I can’t mess with people’s money like that, you know what I’m saying?"

Martin wasn’t being bullheaded. He’d spoken with the training staff and understood that he wasn’t risking a more substantial injury or long-term damage to his life by continuing to play. He believed, too, that he had plenty to offer, even in a diminished state.

"Sometimes it’s just the reputation ­– the reputation of somebody being able to throw guys out is enough to neutralize a running game," he explained. "Just the presence can help, whether it’s the pitcher on the mound who’s used to throwing to you … the game’s mental. You need to be confident mentally."

Martin remained confident mentally with whatever he could muster out of himself on a given day, and his determination was relentless.

"When you get to the end of the year, I want to be back there even if I am banged up," he said. "You have to earn your right to play in those moments."

“We had to make the playoffs. We’re not the only people who get bonuses when we make the playoffs. I can’t mess with people’s money like that, you know what I’m saying?”


***

The first surgery Martin had took place on Dec. 20, 2010, shortly after he signed as a free agent with the New York Yankees. During his physical, a small tear in the meniscus in his right knee was discovered and a procedure was promptly scheduled. But doctors also examined his left knee in the process and said they found enough damage there to suggest operating on both knees at the same time.

"I’m like, ‘No, I’ve never had surgery anywhere, let’s do one, and if I’m good with one then we can do the other one another time,’" Martin recalled. "Because my left one felt fine. But they already saw stuff to get my left knee scoped. So I waited six years and it lasted six years."

By November, Martin needed no encouragement to get the surgery. In fact, this time he pushed for it after the two weeks of rest the Blue Jays had recommended before any decisions were made yielded no gains.

Recalling his conversations with the Yankees in 2010, he called the Blue Jays and "I was like, ‘Let’s just get it done because the way it feels now, it sucks.’"

Now that he feels better, the challenge will be in keeping him that way. Shortly before he arrived in spring training, Martin posted Instagram videos of himself working out in a swimming pool and on dry ground, part of his improved approach to preparing his body.

"Early in my career, I just wanted to prove to everybody, like, ‘Look how hard I can work,’" he said. "Next thing you know, it’s August, and I’m done. I’m just done. The will’s there but my body’s just not allowing me to perform like it should. Part of it is probably that I’m young so I’m not getting as much rest at night, probably going out a little bit too much, and all those things they add up. If you don’t rest, you’re not going to feel fresh the next day."

Not quite as young any longer, he makes sure to rest more. Resistance bands and swimming are a bigger part of his workouts than weights. With the help of the Blue Jays’ high-performance department, he makes sure there are no imbalances in his body – a byproduct of one-sided baseball movements like a swing – by keeping his core strong. The theory is that maintaining balance reduces the risk of injury due to excessive strain on weaker areas.

The Blue Jays should be able to help Martin in other ways this season, too, now that R.A. Dickey is no longer with the team and days off won’t be decided primarily by when the knuckleballer starts. It helps, too, that Jarrod Saltalamacchia is a more appealing option than Josh Thole on days he rests.

"I think our best tool is how we communicate," said Martin. "There might be times in the season where I might need more rest. There might be times where I feel great and I can let them know, hey, I feel great, this is not a time when I need rest. There’s a fine line between, hey, if you’re hot and you feel great, you keep riding it. This is not when I want to have a day off, which was a bit more difficult when Dickey was throwing, when the rotation was set up to work a certain way.

Now that things are a little bit different, I feel that I’m more mature now and more understanding of the communication aspect of it. If I’m banged up, the more you play, you’re not going to heal. There’s that fine line."

A line Martin hopes won’t be quite as difficult to navigate in the season ahead.

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